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A Blog by Action for Children

The True Cost of Child Care: How Access to Affordable, Quality Child Care Can Benefit Us All


“The cost of living these days!”

This common refrain is something working families can appreciate, especially when it comes to child care. Mention the cost of child care and most of us immediately think of the tuition and fees associated with enrolling a child in a formal early learning program. In reality, there’s more than one way to think of the “cost of care” — and maybe it’s time to reframe the cost conversation in a more comprehensive way. 

First, there’s the cost of child care in the most traditional sense – the dollar amount that families pay to enroll their child in a Family Child Care or center-based program. There is no question that child care tuition has become incredibly expensive.

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Image Credit: First Five Years Fund

Studies show that child care costs have increased over 220% in the last 30 years, leading to the average center-based child care costing over $11,400 a year in Ohio. While the financial strain on families is a significant concern, this is only one aspect of the child care cost equation.

Child Care Prices Rose Significantly in 2020, Continuing Decades-Long Trend of Major Annual Increases (First Five Years Fund)

Another way to think about the cost of child care is the cost of operating a child care program. There are significant overhead costs involved in maintaining a high-quality child care program, such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, insurance, and supplies.

These core expenses, coupled with the cost of curriculum, materials, and staff compensation, create a multifaceted financial challenge for child care providers.

Paying early childhood educators a living wage has become increasingly harder since the pandemic. In the Columbus region, one in five child care programs closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing reasons such as lower enrollment and staff shortages. Some families began opting out of center-based care with the rise of remote work, and staffing child care has been daunting given the low (though recently rising) median wage of less than $14 per hour, higher here in central Ohio at $15 per hour. Low wages are commonplace and not only threaten the stability of child care; they also fail to compensate child care educators fairly for the important work they do.

Child care centers can’t afford to stay open. Here’s what this means for families (CNN Business)

For child care workers who often have families of their own to care for, the lack of compensation and availability of other jobs that pay more can make the decision to remain in child care a difficult one. For child care program owners, the staffing implications of workers leaving the field have made it increasingly harder to avoid raising their tuition rates for families, creating a cycle of inaccessibility for families and lower enrollment for centers. As one central Ohio provider told us,

“It is very difficult to find people who want to work in child care. The demands for pay and time are increasing. Burnout is definitely an issue and it’s hard to keep employees longer than six months to a year.”

2022 Child Care Provider Survey Report: Reckoning Not Recovery (Action for Children)

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Image Credit: Action for Children (Courtesy of Columbus Early Learning Centers)

Efforts to create fair wages within the child care industry not only address the staffing crisis but also hold the potential to transform child care into a prosperous and desirable field. 

Raising compensation within the child care sector is important for addressing workforce challenges in the child care industry and also positively shapes children’s developmental and educational trajectories. Enter a third way to think about “the cost of care”: the price paid by families, children, and communities when high-quality, affordable child care is unavailable.

Studies suggest that students who are able to participate in quality early childhood education programs have, on average, an over 11% increase in graduation rates and an average decrease of around 8% in special education placement. When children have the ability to access high-quality early learning experiences, it gives them a higher chance at success later on in life. 

SOURCE: Educ Res., 2017

Investments in accessible, high-quality child care also benefit parents. In a 2020 survey conducted by Northeastern University, researchers found that 26% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic said it was due to a lack of childcare. Even further, these parents were more likely to be women, and disproportionately women of color or single mothers. Compared to non-Black women and married women, both Black women and single women were 1.5x more likely to have their work hours reduced.

The cost of not having child care manifests for parents in a troubling cycle of being unable to work because of the lack of affordable child care, and unable to afford child care because of the lack of work. Increasing access to more affordable child care will allow more parents to go back to work, significantly growing the workforce and combatting discrimination at the same time. 

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Image Credit: Action for Children

Ultimately, the cost of child care – whether the price a family pays, the expenses a provider incurs, or the consequences when its not available – is at the heart of the current child care crisis. Not only has it become costly for families who are sending their children for care, but there are other, often unnoticed, costs of child care or the lack of it.

Child care educators suffer, children suffer, and parents suffer. Addressing these problems will require collective action and engagement not just from policymakers, but parents and families, providers, and businesses alike.  

For those of you with children, grandchildren, loved ones, or whoever else enrolled in costly child care, we need you to be an advocate! You can educate yourself, friends, family, and anyone else on the importance of child care access, and you can stay educated through Action for Children on child care topics.

For child care professionals, it is essential to use your voice to draw attention to the issues you may be facing. You can contact government officials, speak with your community, or, if you’re in central Ohio, you can make sure to respond to our upcoming September survey so we can spread the word on the state of child care for you.

Finally, businesses can make positive investments in the community ecosystems they’re a part of by acknowledging the part they can play in helping lower the cost of child care. Access to child care is imperative to the ability of parents to get to work, and offering child care as an employee benefit, whether through on-site facilities, subsidies, or remote work options, not only aids staff retention but elevates the quality of employee work. 

Regardless of your role, remember, the journey to accessible and affordable child care starts with dedicated individuals like you! 

Author: Shea McHugh, Advocacy and Advancement Associate at Action for Children  

Action for Children is the local child care resource and referral agency for central Ohio, and is committed to assuring quality early learning experiences for all children. Our services focus on transforming the lives of children by supporting the everyday heroes who most influence our children’s early growth; caregivers, educators, parents, and guardians. Learn More.   

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